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Security Contractors: Riding Shotgun With Our Shadow Army in Iraq

They've given me a machine gun and 180 rounds of ammo, and told me not to pee for six hours.

| Tue Apr. 24, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

Not all private security companies are foreign-owned. The psc employing Pirate and Steeler is owned by a Kurdish peshmerga (literally, "facing death") commander. Most of his employees are also Iraqi Kurds, but he also employs a dozen former Lebanese militiamen, 10 Americans, and 1 Canadian.

On one trip to Iraq, two of those Americans, Wade and Tom, both thirtysomething former Washington state National Guardsmen who've done tours of duty in Iraq, offer to pick me up from the Baghdad airport. Wade's a Captain America type; he trains every night in the makeshift, rusty gym he and Tom have set up outside their house in the Green Zone. Tom has brown hair, a slight belly, and always wears a smirk. A weapons-repair expert and a plumber in civilian life, he can fix anything.

As is standard when landing in Baghdad, my plane had taken a sudden, steep plunge at 10,000 feet to avoid any surface-to-air missiles. More dangerous than the landing is Route Irish, the five-mile road from the airport to the Green Zone. Route Irish is lined with reeds and bushes providing excellent cover for attackers. Some weeks feature daily suicide-car explosions, and traffic often stands for hours at a time, thanks to firefights, car bombs, protests, American roadblocks, and general chaos. Iraqi police and soldiers, many trained by DynCorp and other contractors in "force protection" tactics, blaze through such jams in pickup trucks, aiming their weapons menacingly at anyone who comes too close, firing into the air, and sometimes at cars that linger in their path too long.

Wade drove a dusty, old, black Mercedes, followed by a "chase car" with a crew of Kurds whose job was to provide extra firepower. We started hearing gunfire as soon as the car left the airport; any car that came too close was waved off by the gun-brandishing Kurds. Very few Westerners drive themselves in Baghdad, and as we sat in traffic, stunned Iraqis glanced at Wade again and again.

As it turned out, the Kurdish psc Wade and Tom work for had been contracted to guard the same giant supply depot that JB once protected. There, Pirate and a lanky, tattooed ex-Louisiana cop took new Kurdish hires to the depot's gun range and, much to the chagrin of the former peshmerga fighters, gave them basic weapons training, teaching proper posture and breathing, painstakingly demonstrating how to squeeze the butt into the shoulder and place a cheek against the weapon. The lesson then progressed to reloading magazines quickly and with one hand, and then to shooting while moving as a team. These skills are essential for the Kurds, who face insurgents and highway robbers who stage complex ambushes—a roadside bomb followed by grenade attacks and machine-gun fire to take out the lead and rear vehicles and pin down an entire convoy.

The new hires are led by a handsome young Kurd named Soran who joined the peshmerga at 13, occasionally fighting alongside U.S. Special Forces. Soran's American boss only gives his call sign, Buddha. He is the ultimate commander of what he describes as a light battalion of 425 peshmerga and three Western supervisors. Grizzled and cigar smoking, Buddha spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a captain from the elite counterterror Delta Force. He'd subsequently engaged in private operations on behalf of the U.S. government for two decades, including Oliver North's Iran-Contra operations; later, he headed the private security detail of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. During the coup that forced Aristide from power, he claims, he was called to the U.S. Embassy and told that if he continued to protect Aristide, his Army pension would be revoked. Buddha still has a home in Haiti, and a Haitian wife. Of the Kurds he trained, he jokes: "They have to understand what the bump on the end of the barrel is for." The Kurds make an average of $300 to $500 a month. On average, American security contractors make between $9,000 and $12,000 a month. Wade, for example, earns $13,000 a month; his National Guard officer's pay had been $5,000 a month.

The supply depot typically receives 30 to 40 rounds of mortar fire a week, but that's recently tapered off, Buddha explains. He adds that the range of the mortars is 1,300 meters, which "happens to be the range of my sniper rifle," and smiles as he tells me he'd "successfully engaged" insurgents attacking the compound. He's been known to don the traditional dishdasha that locals wear, and the shemagh, or head scarf, to conduct reconnaissance.

Buddha is not optimistic about the war his Army friends are fighting. "I've never seen a war of occupation that worked," he says. "This is an unconventional war being fought by a conventional army." And like other contractors, he says the war depends on the likes of him: "Without us, they could crunch numbers and lie to the public all day, but they wouldn't be able to do it." Long after the American military withdraws, security contractors will remain: "The Iraqi government will have to come to the private security industry because the Iraqi government will face the same problems the U.S. government faces."

Since the invasion, various events have called into question the use of private security contractors: the Blackwater incident, Titan Corp.'s involvement in the Abu Ghraib scandal, each new report of cost overruns or of a particularly unsavory Serbian, South African, or Chilean found to be taking extrajudicial measures. But the truth is more complicated: Because there's also the fact that we decided to invade, and to do so with an inadequate force, and to cover our asses by deploying a shadow force. One for which there will never be flag-draped coffins, or a monument on the Mall. In World War II and Vietnam, the cooks, the truck drivers, the ditch diggers, and, yes, the bodyguards, were all military personnel. Now, with little regard for the consequences, we outsource such dirty work to those who will, for whatever reason, decide the rewards are worth the risk.

A few days after I left, Wade, who has a master's degree in geology but came to Iraq to support his wife and two children, emailed me with an update. Tom had been hit by an ied while driving the same armored black Mercedes I'd ridden around in. "The armor did its job," Wade reported. Tom had emerged unscathed, if shaken. Wade would tell such stories to his wife, even though they worried her sick. (Security contractors reportedly have astronomical divorce rates.) At the end of Wade's last trip stateside, his then seven-year-old son accompanied him to the airport. "He cried for five minutes," Wade said. "I almost changed my mind about going."

A few months later, after three years in Iraq, he did. "My absence was beginning to severely affect my son and my teenage daughter, and my marriage was suffering pretty significantly. It wasn't worth it anymore, no matter how much money I could make. My wife and I had some pretty rough times in the months after I returned, but we're doing very well. Life is great. I have never looked back."

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